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To what extent were the German people supportive of Nazi anti-Semitic policy?
Only a few years ago, a remarkable book exploded on to the academic scene which initiated a heated and sometimes acrimonious debate amongst historians. The Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen had argued in his book Hitler’s willing executioners that Germans were culturally predisposed to mistreat and kill Jews.
This essay will look the extent to which Germans were supportive of Nazi anti-Semitic policy mainly through the lens of the Goldhagen debate. It will have to explore three interrelated but distinct conceptual questions. Firstly, it will have to determine the nature of the anti-Semitic policies themselves. Secondly, the essay needs to clarify what type of support was typical amongst Germans. Thirdly, the essay needs to ask how support was articulated and how reliable the various types of historical evidence is to reach so dramatic conclusions as Goldhagen did in his work. Goldhagen’s thesis can be summed up briefly by saying that he believes to have identified the single most important motivation of Germans to kill Jews. He writes:
‘[There was a] widespread profound German cultural animus towards Jews that evolved from an early nineteenth century eliminationist form to the more deadly twentieth century incarnation.’
While Germans throughout the past two centuries harboured this ‘eliminationist anit-Semitic attitude’ towards the Jewish people, ‘only with the control of Eastern Europe could Germans finally act upon Hitler’s pre-existing exterminationist intentions.’ Goldhagen attributes to Germans a general voluntarism and enthusiasm for cruelty in performing their assigned and self-appointed task of exterminating Jews. Goldhagen maintains that all other ways of explaining German anti-Semitic behaviour during the various phases of discriminatory Nazi policy have failed for some reason. The only viable explanation must be, so Goldhagen argues, that Germans were somehow pre-disposed to kill Jews. His claims rests on an analysis of the actions of ordinary Germans, the Police Battalion 101 and their general willingness to execute the exterminationist orders of the Nazi leadership. He then claims that ‘all conventional explanations explicitly or implicitly posit universal human traits’ so that explanations must hold true for everyone. Something Goldhagen insistently rejects. This, he exclaims, is ‘obviously and demonstrably false’. He uses a two-pronged, methodologically questionable, strategy however. First, his thesis undergoes a daring generalisation when he claims that the actions of some Germans, those who willingly engage in mass murder, are indicative of the attitudes of all Germans (something that implicitly accepts by the way the Nazi assumption that assimilated German Jews are not Germans!). The second step is even more audacious methodologically. On some grounds he now claims that this attitudes is a trait specific only to Germans, no one else. He writes:
‘The one explanation adequate to these tasks holds that a demonological anti-Semitism, of the virulent racial variety, was the common structure of the perpetrators cognition, and of German society in general.’
In short, Germans killed Jews because they were Germans, and every German would be subscribing to the same eliminationist anti-Semitic attitude. If that is the case, the extent to which Germans were supportive of Nazi anti-Semitic ideology and policy is clear. All Germans potentially supported them, even or especially if this included the physical elimination of the Jewish people. They did so, not because they found Nazi ideology particularly persuasive, or were convinced that this is for the better good of German society, but simply because they were Germans.
This identification of an ethnic group with a particular character trait of course is, strictly speaking, no explanation at all. It is a conjecture that awaits evidence and elaboration. Goldhagen provides neither. His logic, as Josef Joffe writes, is simplistic and defies any reasonable historical method. ‘The killers were ordinary Germans, ergo the ordinary Germans were killers.’ Goldhagen’s book therefore lack the rigorous methodological standards of any decent historical work. Methodologically his work offers a circular thesis and is conspicuously devoid of argument and evidence.
If such a simplistic approach fails to provide an answer to the question, we should look further. First, what was Nazi policy towards the Jews?
Historians stress that Nazi policy greatly differed throughout the years of their twelve-year terror reign. Although Hitler had sketched the main outlines of his anti-Semitic attitude even before January 1933 and although Hitler and others were very sympathetic to the sporadic killings, beatings and other reprisals against Jews in German cities, they also feared this would diminish the widespread popular support that the Nazi government enjoyed in the first months after the appointment of Hitler as chancellor. What was needed was to reign in and organise properly the anti-Semitic actions, effectively basing them on a more legal basis and thereby giving them a façade of legitimacy. Behind this problem stood the issue of competency of policy, and a constant state of confusion as to who was responsible for what in the many layers of the new regime. The fact however that Hitler and his inner circle deemed it necessary after coming to power to curtail the actions of the SA and place anti-Semitic boycotts on a more legal basis indicates that, although many Germans agreed with Hitler’s assessment that Jews had a too prominent role in German economic and social life, they did not necessarily support haphazard, extralegal and sporadic anti-Semitic attacks on a daily basis. The Nazi leadership hence adjusted their policy and from now on favoured a slower approach to eliminating Jews from German public life. Graml notes that a process took place that may be termed the ‘disciplining the persecution of Jews’. He writes:
‘Disciplining the persecution of the Jews meant above all a move away from the terror of the stormtroopers to formal anti-Semitic legislation.’
Another significant difference in anti-Semitic policy is equally overlooked by Goldhagen but of great relevance to the question of why Germans supported Nazi policy. With the start of the war in 1939 and the occupation of Poland and other Eastern European countries is became clear that Nazi policy towards Jews distinguished sharply between assimilated German Jews and Sephardic Eastern European Jews. While the former were gradually frozen out of German public life, East European Jews suffered from exterminationist policies almost immediately after the start of the war. The goal of the Nazi leadership with respect to them was immediate and radical obliteration of any Jewish culture and life in this area, something that was eventually extended to the German Jewry as well but only as late as 1943. The difference of treatment is significant since it may indicate that Germans harboured different attitudes to their widely assimilated neighbours and Eastern European Jews. Eventual extermination of German Jews may have been anticipated by the Nazi leadership fairly early on, but the regime lacked the popular support to introduce any radical measures to initiate this process. In fact, historians point out that the progrom of 1938 (Reichskristallnacht) was received with widespread horror and disapproval amongst the German population. The government never engaged in similar boycotts and overt actions against German Jews until the beginning of the war. Graml writes:
‘[to implement] the anti-Semitic message into policy was not simple, other priorities existed, amongst others to solidify their [the Nazi’s] power base. The brutal and open anti-Semitic agitation practiced by the Nazi party failed to make any positive impression at all on the majority of the population.’
That does not mean that German Jews did not suffer a horrifying slow marginalisation in German society which culminated in the visible stigmatisation and discrimination of Jews in all parts of public life. Jews were rapidly becoming second class citizens and this process was visible and obvious to every German. It is this process of gradual marginalisation of Jews in German society that probably received most support from ordinary Germans, and which eventually led to a broader acceptance of their ‘final destination’: physical extermination. The broad catalogue of discriminatory measures against German Jews were in effect removing them from German society and ensured that the final step, their physical obliteration, was accepted as inevitable fate as they were increasingly associated with the guilt for war in Nazi propaganda.
To summarise, the differences in policy vis-à-vis Jews in Germany and the occupied territories after the start of the war also elicited different responses by Germans and hence indicate different levels of support. Kulka notes that Germans probably viewed ‘racial legislation as a permanent solution of social, cultural and biological segregation but conditional upon the preservation of public law and order.’ Thus Germans distinguished between Eastern European and German Jews, although this differentiation grew less and less significant as the war progressed and as Nazi ideology managed to portray German Jews as similar to those of the Sephardic Jews.
The second important issue concerns the constituency of supporters of Nazi ideologies and policy. Who were they? Did they all equally endorse anti-Semitic policies? Goldhagen claims that all ordinary Germans were in fact anti-Semites, and bases this claim on his account of the role of ordinary Germans in the mass killings that occurred in Eastern Europe. His conclusion is a swift and methodologically flawed one: ordinary Germans did the killing, so every ordinary German must potentially be a killer. In this logic, all ordinary Germans would be supportive of the most radically eliminationist policy. A closer look at the evidence reveals a different picture however.
Goldhagen was not the first who looked at ‘ordinary Germans’ and emphasised their voluntary and at times sadistic attitude to mass murder. In fact not even the particular focus of his inquiry, the Police Battalions operating in the hinterland of the Eastern front were original. Christopher Browning already published a book on the unparalleled brutality of the Police Battalion 101 and attempts similarly to identify a plausible explanation for the behaviour of the policemen. Although Browning is equally perplexed by the cruelty and viciousness that the policemen displayed throughout the murderous procedures, he rejects any simplistic explanations but instead argues that a whole range of factors may are contributed to the callousness of the men. He stresses in stark contrast to Goldhagen, that at the root of every action lies an individual decision which must be accounted for in individual not generalist terms; an explanatory approach that deeply resonates with the opinion of other scholars. Therefore, dealing with a whole group of murderers, explanations can only sketch some of the most significant factors which may have played a role in stripping the men of their humane and cultural inhibitions. Browning does not shy away from references to the wider German society, but the tone of his propositions is remarkably different to that of Goldhagen. Browning writes:
‘The men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, like the rest of German society [sic], were immersed in a deluge of racist and anti-Semitic propaganda.’
However, he declines to extrapolate from his evidential base to German society as a whole. Instead he is sympathetic to a complex social explanation of their actions.
‘Insidiously, most of those who did not shoot only re-affirmed the ‘macho’ values of the majority according to which it was a positive quality to be ‘tough’ enough to kill unarmed, non-combatant men, women, and children – and tried not to rupture the bonds of comradeship that constituted their social world.’
According to Browning, the men were motivated by a raft of socio-psychological aspects not by simply being German. This should illustrate that talking about Germans as a collection of individuals who feature that same preternatural anti-Semitic disposition makes little sense. It fails to acknowledge the variance of opinion on Nazi ideology and policy as well as cannot explain why some become inhibited murderers and others do not. Their ethnic identity (being German) does not add up to be a plausible explanation of their allegedly eliminationist anti-Semitism since it cannot take account of the fact the Germans frequently intermarried with Jews since their emancipation in 1867. German had long ceased to be a homogenous ethnic group, tied together by ‘purity of blood lines’ as Nazi ideology suggested.
Now let us proceed to the last issue, the forms in which Germans may have expressed their support for anti-Semitic policies. Again, a methodologically difficulty lies at the heart of this issue. How to distinguish between those who gave their tacit support and those who engaged in demonstrative actions of support? Which form was a more accurate reflection of endorsement for Nazi policies? Historians have pointed out that about half a million Germans were actively involved in the Final Solution, the physical extermination of Jews after 1943. This included administrative work as well as the actual killings. Important sections of the economy and government were directly involved in the killings by providing crucial assistance in terms of resources, material and time to the Holocaust. Interestingly, we do not have to engage in a flight of fancy guess work but have some hard facts that may shed some light on the forms and extent of support for anti-Semitic policies amongst the German population. Nazis as well as the victorious armies conducted extensive surveys that were supposed to demonstrate the extent to which anti-Semitism messages were favourably received by the German population. Kulka sums up the evidence:
‘the post 1945 surveys… give [us] a reliable indication of attitudes amongst Germans: twenty percent were supportive of Nazi policies towards Jews; nineteen percent were generally in favour [of anti-Semitic policies] but said that Hitler had gone too far. Overall the surveys found that identification with the Final Solution was quite widespread among the public in the Third Reich.’
The question however remains whether the silence on the Holocaust was due to indifference or reflected endorsement of physical elimination of Jews. Norbert Frei argues that the extent to which workers had been won over by Nazi policies may give us a reliable clue as to the amount of support. He argues that the Nazi slogan of Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community) somehow captures the essence of anti-Semitism and the gradual acceptance of this idea would in turn show how far Germans had consented to discriminatory measures against Jews. By the mid 1930s, Frei argues, the German workers had virtually be convinced the idea of people’s community was constitutive for German society, a concept that would preclude any participation of Jews in German public life.
This hints at those pockets of resistance to Nazi propaganda which many historians conventionally identify as conservative, catholic milieus and whose resilience to Nazi propaganda can only be explained by social and cultural factors, an explanation that Goldhagen explicitly rejects.
Overall, to what extent were Germans really supportive of anti-Semitic policies? The question evokes a complex answer. Policy changed throughout the regime and hence the degree of support differed. Also, policies varied with regard to different ethnic groups of Jews throughout Europe, and so did the response and support of Germans for these policies. And finally, German people were not a unitary entity. Their responses to Nazi policy was influenced by their educational, cultural, religious and social background, by the different level of sympathy for the wider Nazi ideology, as well as by the way in which they were affected themselves by Nazi policies throughout the regime. Given this wide range of variances, no serious historian can offer only one universal portrait of German support for anti-Semitic measures.
Christopher R. Browning. Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins 1992.
Norbert Frei. People’s Community and War: Hitler’s Popular Support. In Hans Mommsen (ed.). The Third Reich between Vision and Reality. New Perspectives on German History 1918-1945. Oxford New York: Berg 2001.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. London: Abacus 1996.
Hermann Graml. Anti-Semitism in the Third Reich. Oxford: Blackwell 1992.
Josef Joffe. ‘The Killers were ordinary Germans, ergo the ordinary Germans were killers’: The Logic, the Language and the Meaning of a Book that conquered Germany. In Robert R. Shandley (ed.). Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate. London: University of Minnesota Press 1998.
Otto Dov Kulka. The German Population and the Jews: State of Research and New Perspectives. In David Bankier (ed.). Probing the Depths of German Anti-Semitism. German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem 2000.
Hans Mommsen. From Weimar to Auschwitz. Essays in German History. Cambridge: Polity 1991.
P.G.J. Pulzer. The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. New York e.a.: Wiley 1964.
Roger W. Smith. ‘Ordinary Germans’, the Holocaust, and Responsibility: Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Moral Perspective. In Franklyn H. Littell (ed.). Hyping the Holocaust. Scholars answer Goldhagen. Merion Station 1997.
 Cf. Roger W. Smith. ‘Ordinary Germans’, the Holocaust, and Responsibility: Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Moral Perspective. In Franklyn H. Littell (ed.). Hyping the Holocaust. Scholars answer Goldhagen. Merion Station 1997, p.48-49.
 Josef Joffe. ‘The Killers were ordinary Germans, ergo the ordinary Germans were killers’: The Logic, the Language and the Meaning of a Book that conquered Germany. In Robert R. Shandley (ed.). Unwilling Germans? The Goldhagen Debate. London: University of Minnesota Press 1998, p.217.
 Otto Dov Kulka. The German Population and the Jews: State of Research and New Perspectives. In David Bankier (ed.). Probing the Depths of German Anti-Semitism. German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem 2000, p.274.
 Norbert Frei. People’s Community and War: Hitler’s Popular Support. In Hans Mommsen (ed.). The Third Reich between Vision and Reality. New Perspectives on German History 1918-1945. Oxford New York: Berg 2001, p.63.
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